My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Dirt Under All Our Fingernails (Artists and Money)

Image description: The words "Art & Money on a
wall created out of US currency.
This is not an appeals post, but if it makes you want to donate through the Paypal link to the left or drop a buck into my Patreon, I surely won't complain.

I'm sort of trying to figure out how to make more money with Writing About Writing. I don't mean by exploiting it or anything. You won't see a sudden burst of pop-up ads for herbal strip Texas Hold Em Nigerian finance viagra porn enlargement or anything. (I thought about re-adding ads but I really want to try to avoid that.) Rather I want to give people the opportunity, and the gentle nudge to donate. Future endeavors will roll out much more quickly the closer I am to a full time writer. [2018 Edit: Almost there. Just need to pare down a few more side gigs.]

Of course I also know that I'm more likely to get patrons and donations if I'm not jazz handsifying so much. My "A-game" is still around here somewhere, I just left it in my non-cancer/moving/toddler pants. But based on how many weasels are clawing at the back of my skull even right this fucking second, if my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles an hour of writing time...you're going to see some serious shit.

Image Description: Back to the Future screenshot of Doc Brown and Marty in Twin Pines parking lot.

For the past four years since I started this blog, and absolutely since The Contrarian was in his third trimester almost three years ago, these following things have been true:

1- I did not really have to worry about money because my family situation was essentially the house husband to a family doing pretty darned well. Money I made from Writing About Writing went towards retirement fund, blog improvements, two-months-off-to-hammer-out-a-book-draft savings, and the occasional promotion of one of my articles on Facebook.

2- Donations have helped me make small tweaks to my schedule that produced a bit more writing (like cutting down from teaching two nights a week to one night a week or getting in a housekeeper twice a month), and they have certainly helped me muscle through some of my worst moments of feeling like I'd rather put the blog on hiatus during the tough times, but...

3- The real things affecting how often (and how long) I was able to write were not really tied to money. Money could get me a Monday night off or get a housekeeper in to do the deep cleaning so I had a bit less in chores, but the real things pulling me away from writing weren't going to be helped by money. Childcare, hospitals, stress. Unless I were making enough to hire a full time au pair or something, there's nothing to be done when life is coming on this strong–nothing but write as hard as possible in the cracks.

In about two to three months, none of these things will be true.

Not only will I no longer be able to afford a carefree attitude about money because I won't be living with said family anymore, but your donations will have a direct and immediate impact on how much I'll be able to write. And when I say immediate, I mean that there's a possibility that $100 on a Friday might mean I'm not driving Lyft that weekend, so I get a better article out as soon as Monday.

I'm also remembering a conversation with someone a couple of years ago on Livejournal. "I hate artists that talk about their page views and readership and sales," she said, "because I know that ultimately that is really just them getting people fired up about them making more money."

There's a tangle of paradoxical truths about artists and money and their sordid relationship to each other. One of the most pernicious, that goes way back, is that a "real" artist shouldn't care about money. They should just do their art and let it speak for itself.


Absolute fucking bullshit.

Image description: snob w/ pipe;
but w/o monocle
Not just run of the mill, "vomitoriums-are-where-the-Romans-threw-up-during-orgies" level bullshit. This is the kind of bullshit that actually has its roots in class oppression and general human assholery.

What this cultural narrative is basically saying is that art is only for the rich. If you can't sit around and do art leisurely with no need to ever get paid for it, then you are an unworthy artist sullying the entire thing with your plebeian need for food and clothing. And in the writing world, you see this in everything from MFA disdain for pragmatism and business level classes to a sneering contempt for commercial success.

It's possible to do art if you're struggling at two jobs working sixty hours a week, but art is actually work, and that means that it's likely to take significant commitments of time and energy. And your creative brain needs its needs met (and not to be putting out fires all the time) to work at peak efficiency.

Now (stay with me for a just a second) who do you think out there might want to make sure that the kind of art being produced by folks who don't really need money is considered more real, more worthy, and more exemplary of what real art is, and the kind of art being produced by folks trying to make a living with it is a voice they want to silence or muffle.

Take all the time you need.

This whole thing where artists recoil from being paid and people think asking to have their artistic labors compensated is uncouth is the propaganda of the class war of attrition. It keeps art and artists, their voices, and their expressions, coming from the upper crust, where the struggles of the less privileged are ignored. And even though there are fewer overt and explicit attempts by the higher classes to spell this out these days, the culture (like much of the "high art world") has deep roots in a time that very much did.  The social barriers that are created to separate classes in entertainment and expression are as tried and true as table etiquette. (And equally as meaningless.)

Navigating getting paid is the fish fork of the art world. And the bourgeois anesthetized art world that it creates, afraid to acknowledge that art is work, and artists don't all have trust funds and rich husbands, suffers for its lack of voices.

For one, many artists you can think of worked for money. DaVinci, Shakespeare, Picasso, Mozart. They were all working for a paycheck. Dickens had a billion kids to pay for. Warhol came from an immigrant coal miner who died when he was young. Scorsese came from poverty. And even though you can probably name a few who never made a dime from their work like Van Gogh or Dickinson (both from families monied enough that they didn't have to work very much, if you're keeping score), you often have to look at careers that were only posthumously honored to do so.

But more to the point, the idea that someone with a skill they have worked years perfecting shouldn't ask for money to ply it is preposterous in any other trade. There are a number of memes lampooning this idea about trying to get hotels to work for "future opportunities" or cooks to work for "exposure" or plumbers being told that illegally not paying for their work is doing them a favor. We only have this taboo around art because of the ancient traditions of who is "allowed" to be an artist.

Should an artist do their art only for the money?


Most artists–in fact, almost all artists–have to face the fact that their art work is probably never going to pay their bills (at least not all of them) and pretty much every artist save a fraction of one percent has not had to look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves the really hard question of whether or not they'd do it anyway.

Most artists worth their salt would do it anyway. It yearns to come out. No matter how many day jobs they have, the art squeezes out of their soul like the Play-Doh spaghetti press.

But asking for money once the art or entertainment product is done is another thing altogether. Trying to make money from art is as old as the capitalistic value of starving people to death who aren't producing enough labor to feed the capitalistic machine. (As is the view that if they were going to make it anyway, why should I bother paying for it, Chris added cynically.)

Is marketing and networking more important than the art itself?


Over-promotion is something that everyone with limited content really needs to worry about. And that saturation point is probably going to feel different to each socio/economic class. (Shockingly the more money you have, the less of an issue it is, and the more uncouth it is to talk about it.) However an artist with superb art and no reach will be similarly unable to pay the bills. So the work can't just "speak for itself" if no one is listening. Most, in fact pretty much all, artists have to come up with ways to promote their work and market it. Or did you think that the trailers at the beginning of your movie were fundamentally different than "Hey, you like writing, you might want to check out my blog."

Should an artist change their art based on what will sell?


There's this idea that artists shouldn't sell out for money, but....we all do. Seriously even Fitzgerald, that fucking pretentious fucker, wrote shitty movies for Hollywood. And James Joyce had to borrow money repeatedly from rich friends because he had so many money-making schemes go awry. Money matters to an artist because if it dries up, they have to go get a job and stop making art. Hard to keep writing (or painting or whatever) if the power's out, you know?

Should an artist worry about materialism?

Yes. Yes. YES. FUCK YES!

Look, you don't find too many artists living in opulence. You don't find very many artists cruising around in expensive cars or flashing around their conspicuous consumption. The best outfit someone in the London Philharmonic owns is probably their formalwear for when they play. Most working artists interested in leaving behind side gig hobbyism for "The Show" want to do their art as much as possible and pare down their day job lives to give them as much art time with their art as possible. Most artists don't cruise around the French Riviera going into bankruptcy. If artists (who were not born into high class) have a predilection for spending money, it is PROBABLY on other art. Visual artists have more paintings than wall space. Filmmakers have rooms full of movies. Performers are constantly going to the theater. Writers' houses could easily be moderately-sized libraries.

But artists still have to fucking eat. And no one's getting a writer's next book if they're too busy driving a taxi to make rent instead of that third revision. They aren't some ethereal beings who pull their inspiration out of the celestial kingdom and never need sleep and can write just as well only on sleep-addled weekends between jobs two and three.

Artists worry about the same shit you do. Their rent. Their electric bills. Their retirement plan. Their health insurance. And if people like their art, giving them shit about trying to get that stuff covered, so that they can go on making art is especially butts.

So what does it all mean?

You mean besides the fact that I need to step slowly away from the rant that started at 7am? And that maybe I should switch to decaf and make sure all my roommate's Adderall pills are accounted for? You mean as some kind of advice?

  1. Don't be afraid to ask for money.
  2. Recognize where your refined sense that artists shouldn't be at all materialistic comes from.
  3. Remember that you'll probably never pay the bills with your art, and ask yourself if you want to do it anyway.
  4. If you can ever be the househusband of a family doing pretty well, jump on that shit, because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and otherwise you'll have to set up a Patreon like me.
  5. Oh and if you do love art, pay the artist.


  1. Something to consider: get a job as a night clerk at a motel or hotel if you can finagle it. When I worked the night shift at Motel 6, I got shit pay, but I was only responsible for the following:

    1) Help anyone who needed help checking in or with whatever (took maybe 15 minutes a day)
    2) Check people in/check people out (hardly any work at all)
    3) Balance the books (took 1-2 hours; basic accounting arithmetic)
    4) Clean the lobby and make coffee (took 1 hour tops)

    I usually had about 5 hours of free time per shift. I couldn't leave the front desk, but they were explicit that I could do whatever I wanted, including sleep, provided I was awake for anyone who needed me and I did my list of chores every day. That was the only semester at HSU where I got As and Bs--because I did my homework at work.

    It's shit money, but it's money, and you can write while you work.

  2. Oh man, I love this. You've put into words so much that I've been thinking about and trying to articulate lately. Thank you.

  3. I almost feel like I'm at the point where I'm making enough on art to break even. I've been painting for more than ten years, and have had a studio practice since 2009, and yet when I do the math, last year I paid more to make art than I made from selling it. A contract job here and there was all it took to put me close to being in the black.

    I could just haul ass and put myself out there at every opportunity, and make a hell of a lot more, and use that money to be in the studio for longer hours. But to be honest, the point of it, for me, isn't about making money. Making money takes just as much effort as making the art itself, but it's also more boring than watching paint dry.

    I mean that, and yet I don't, because I sometimes actually like watching paint dry, and I've never really enjoyed the sales process. Maybe not even because it's boring, but because it's fraught with anxiety. Money makes me feel irrationally dirty, it frightens me because I've never felt that it was something I could get my hands on in any kind of quantity that would mean "security," and people who have wealth don't seem to understand that it makes me feel like so much less of a person to be visibly poorer than they are. I mean, I choose to keep painting, right? *nervous laughter* It's totally voluntary, yep.

    I swear I had a point here that was relevant. I'm just gonna keep painting in the cracks between jobs and sleeping.

  4. I would support you on Patreon! Amanda Palmer's "The Art of Asking." She did a TED talk and wrote a book. Check it out.